Reimagining disability

March 01, 2021 | Ishita Wadhwa

You call us different
and in the same breath special
so why is our difference also our inequality?

How could you possibly claim to be open-hearted
if your acceptance of us is the power you give to yourself
after you construct this divide so deliberately?

How could you possibly claim to be free
when your excrescent freedom emerges from the boxes you so thoughtfully create for us –
banishing us into them for the sake of your normalcy?

These boxes; these names stink of your betrayal;
of your inability to engineer a world that embraces us for who we are, with all our possibilities.
Is it simply because we circumvent your definition of normativity?

Why does – and how come – your sense of yourself takes root from stealing us from ourselves
because I have never been your box; your name; or your definition of me
and I will continue to never be.

Disability is not just a word in a dictionary. It is a label and one of the most definitive identity pegs. Traditionally, disability has been studied from the perspective of the medical model, according to which disability lies in the individual. Disability is therefore seen as a personal problem. The medicalisation of disability focuses on the deficits and failures of mind and body. Such a conception lends itself to the pathologization of the disabled. He/she is seen as departing from the normal and the norm, requiring medical care, support and treatment.

Where do these conceptions emerge? Why does the medical gaze pathologize the disabled? The medical conceptions of disability do not emerge in the medical systems themselves. They originate in a socio-political mileu of which the medical systems are a part. It is the society which defines the contours of disability and gives it meaning. It is therefore imperative to reimagine disability; and to shift from the medical to the social understanding of disability.

The social model of disability originated with the global Disability Rights movement of the 1960s in opposition to the medical model. The Disability Rights movement was a self-advocacy movement by the disabled themselves, providing what can be considered the most elementary understanding of disability as it focused on the emic point of view. It defines disability as a social construct – as something located not in individuals but in the discriminatory practices of the society.

Disability was recognsed as a socio-political practice that entails first defining the normal and the anomie; establishing the category of normal as the yardstick; differentiating and classifying individuals accordingly; and then valuing those that conform to the norm of normality and devaluing those that do not. Consequently, the society is engineered to serve the ‘abled’ and ‘normal’.

The alienation, discrimination, stigmatization and exclusion of the disabled cannot be viewed separately from the lack of both mental and societal infrastructure required to incorporate them in society. Their lack of access to equal rights and opportunities – and an overall life with similar trajectories as their counterparts – is a result of physical, institutional and societal barriers that the society creates by virtue of how it defines ableism. What is required thus, is the recognition of the constructed nature of the category of disability as well as the constructed nature of the environment as such, that obstructs and limits their access, and more importantly, their being in society. Insofar as the everyday sense of disability is concerned, a personalized understanding of the ‘problem’ of disability needs an urgent displacement by a social understanding – a critique of the system itself. Because honestly, who are we to accept persons with disability when the world is as much theirs, as ours.

About the author: Ishita Wadhwa has a postgraduate degree in Sociology from the Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University. She is passionate about the life-worlds of those at the margins and hopes to be of service through her love for research. She has provided pro bono services to the Amrit Foundation of India.